Canada’s Afghanistan intervention is a disastrous failure

September 1, 2010

Canada has been part of the evolving Afghanistan intervention in a variety of ways since it began in early October 2001, and the substantial 2005-2011 redeployment to Kandahar is having a deep impact on our military and foreign policy.

The 2011 withdrawal date for the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar is approaching, and, as the discussion turns to what is next for Canada on the global scene, many are saying both that the intervention has been a success, at least in part, and that it ought to be continued.

In June, for example, both Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae urged Canadians to support staying in Afghanistan. Ignatieff went so far as to adopt the Bush tactic of shaming the Harper government into support for a robust post-2011 mission by accusing it of wanting “to cut and run.”

Also in June, the Canadian Standing Committee on National Security and Defence published Where We Go from Here: Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan, its latest and least critical report on the mission, recommending that Canada “must continue beyond 2011.”

South of the border, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, head of all international troops in Afghanistan, was relieved of command in June because of critical comments he and his staff made about top players in the U.S. administration, and about the war itself. General McChrystal was replaced by U.S. General David Petraeus, who has been endorsed by both former President George W. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama. Gen. Petraeus is the principal architect of the new counterinsurgency approach in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he actually stepped down from his command over the greater region to replace McChrystal in Afghanistan.

In his confirmation hearings, General Patraeus reiterated remarks made by Obama to the effect that the coalition would be needed in Afghanistan for many years to come. In late July, the major international contributors to the intervention agreed to extend their involvement beyond 2011 to at least 2014, an agreement unaffected by the leak shortly afterward of some 91,000 pages of classified U.S. military documents that amount to an unwilling official admission of severe problems in Afghanistan. The push continues to keep as many coalition forces as possible in Afghanistan, as long as possible, even though, according to its own goals, the intervention has been an utter disaster. The intervention’s stated goals have been to significantly improve security, development, and governance in Afghanistan in order to reduce the likelihood that the country will again become a base for international terrorism. Improving the status of women and girls has also been an apparent priority. But no significant improvement of security, development, governance, and the status of women and girls in Afghanistan has occurred in the nine years the coalition has been active there.

In June, Canadian Brigadier General Jonathan Vance, who commanded Canadian troops in Afghanistan in 2009, returned to Afghanistan to replace Brigadier General Daniel Ménard, who was relieved of command because of an alleged inappropriate intimate relationship. A refreshingly frank leader, General Vance admits that “all we could do was not lose” in Kandahar during 2006-2009. Certainly, a winless streak of more than three years for the largest Canadian military mission since the Korean War is a disappointing outcome.

General Vance likes to refer to the major assessment made last summer by U.S. General McChrystal — an assessment most likely micro-managed by General Patraeus — who wrote: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the next 12 months… risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

Tasked with reversing the insurgent tide before it is too late, the U.S. has built up a great flood of pro-government troops to flush insurgents out of crucial areas in Helmand and Kandahar. However, during its Helmand phase the surge forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes and, soon after the operation was completed, insurgents began to return. These developments were seriously detrimental to the coalition counterinsurgency strategy of winning and holding local support.

Repeated many times in Afghanistan since 2001, the calamity of a futile coalition operation followed by an insurgent return is unlikely to be avoided again as the pro-government tide rises during the Kandahar phase of the surge this fall — an operation now mired in a swamp of postponement and desperate attempts to lower public expectations.

All this suggests that significantly improving security in Afghanistan may no longer be possible – if it ever was.

General Vance also admits that the Canadian “whole of government” approach, which addresses development and governance, was not “such that a tangible difference was perceived” in Kandahar during 2006-2009. Indeed, with respect to the development front, the results are heartbreaking. According to data collected between about 1995 and 2000 — roughly the reign of the Taliban --Afghanistan was the second least-developed country in the world. Its people could expect to live an average of 42 years, a quarter of newborn babies died before the age of five, and adult literacy stood at a dismal 36%.

According to the most recent data, collected up to about 2007 (and so taking in half a decade of intervention), Afghanistan remained the second least-developed country in the world, with its people’s life expectancy still at 43 years, a quarter of newborns still dying before the age of five, and adult literacy actually falling to 28%.

Given the deteriorating security situation since about 2006, data collected since 2007 is likely to be worse, and recently UNICEF ranked Afghanistan the worst country in the world in which to be born — clearly a catastrophic state of affairs.

The results are no better on the governance front. The fraud that marred the 2009 Afghan presidential election was spectacular, with up to one-quarter of the votes cast being invalid. The prominent corruption watchdog Transparency International recently ranked the country the second most corrupt on the planet, and in recently leaked cables Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, strongly opposed the current surge and its counterinsurgency strategy – largely because the prospects of success are critically threatened by the utter lack of reliable state structures and leadership. There has been no significant improvement of governance.

Finally, with respect to the status of women, although distorted reports in praise of the intervention continue to find their way into the media, the 2009 UN gender-related Human Development Index ranked Afghanistan the second worst country in the world for women and girls. And last December, discussing the “diminishing status of women’s rights in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch declared that in fact “women have not been a central priority for the government or for international donors, whose focus is primarily on the armed conflict.”

Judged on the basis of its own goals, then, the nine-year-old intervention has been a disastrous failure. The outcome for Afghanistan is that it is now very nearly the least secure, least developed, least well-governed, and least gender-progressive country on Earth. Terror within Afghanistan is a grim fact of life, and Afghans continue to be killed, injured, and alienated by deadly coalition operations, as well as the coalition’s failure to deliver on any of its promises.

Increasingly, Afghans are calling the intervention an “occupation” closely linked to a warlord-riddled puppet government — a recipe for resentment, resistance, and quite possibly a rise in terrorism aimed at coalition member states.

Failure of this magnitude should prompt serious analysis of the NATO-led coalition’s responsibility for the disaster that has been unfolding in Afghanistan for nearly a decade. Don’t be surprised, however, if our leaders continue to rebrand and rationalize the intervention and promise its eventual success as they arrogantly shame us into marching on, so that might may continue to be applied regardless of right.

(John Duncan is director of the Ethics, Society, and Law program at Trinity College, University of Toronto.)